On meat-eating

P1010907Not gory, not fleshy:  last night’s salad

A call came in.

“Do you want a backbone?” asked my friend.

See, I am not missing a backbone, and never could have been accused of such:  I’m pretty spiny (in more ways than one, especially if you rub me the wrong way).  No.  This call related to a pig’s backbone, as its owner didn’t know what to do with it.  Apparently, a pig came her way (these things are known to happen if you live with your ear to the local food rail) and she got smart and called the itinerant animal killer/butcher to come over and help her out.   He did, killing and hoisting that boy onto the branch of a tree.  She took it from there, with one of her children holding the butchering book.

But I didn’t want a backbone.  Backbone of poultry, backbone of beef, yes, I wouldn’t have said no.  But pigs don’t make great stock, and that would be why I would need a backbone.  (Maybe I can smoke it, then use parts to flavor bean dishes. Hmm.)

“Do you have any meat you don’t want, or fat?  Or the head?  That, that I could deal with,” I said.

Jonathan Safran Foer has a nonfiction book out now called Eating Animals.  I have never been able to stomach his fiction, but he’s a clearer, less annoying voice when he’s researching things and telling stories from his life.  A vegetarian who’s wavered between carnivory and veganism, this book prods us to think about what it is that we DO eat.  One of the more outlandish outtakes that’s been covered in the media is his questioning our taboo of pet flesh.  (I would throw horse in there too:  there are peoples all over the world who eat pets AND horses, as you might know.)  For the most part, though, the book is a look at the meat industry, and how it has accomplished its highest goal:  keeping us away from knowing what it is we eat.  Keeping us blissfully ignorant, in fact; the average American consumes 21,000 animals in his or her lifetime.  (How so many, you ask?  Ground beef in your burgers is how:  there could be up to 400 individuals in your patty.)

As a new-ish returned carnivore (two years this month, all due to producing my own meat) I obviously have very strong opinions on this issue.  My reason for 16 years of vegetarianism is that I could not be ignorant, no matter how hard I tried.  No, it was too cruel, eating meat from factory farms; it wasn’t who I was, or am.  But I am not blind to the way my own animals live and die, and I can easily eat those of the beef and pig farmers I know.

That’s all it’s about.  Being a little less cruel.  Being a little more open-eyed to the reality of our food.  And being game when backbones come your way.

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15 responses to “On meat-eating

  1. I’m thinking you’re on the right track. Smoking it and putting it in bean dishes is the way to go, IMO. Yum.

    You give me different ways to think about my food El. I like that in you. Thanks.

  2. Oh, I hope you took the pig backbone.

  3. My mom also insists pig bones don’t make good stock, but I beg to differ, especially from a home-grown hog. Brown them in the oven first , add a can of tomatoes in while the stock simmers. Shred the meat off the bones, add some hominy and kale, and you get…well, I don’t know what to call it, but it’s good!

  4. I agree with your sentiments. A book that I just finished along the same lines is Righteous Porkchop by Nicolette Hahn Niman, a lawyer turned environmental lawyer and activist for Waterkeepers who was asked by Robt. Kennedy to investigate pork industry CAFOs and try to turn public opinion against them. She is a vegetarian who wound up marrying a California beef rancher (Bill Niman)! The book is extremely informative about the industry (with related comments on other kinds of CAFOs). She is very good at dissecting the issues revolving around CAFOs.

  5. Now, I know that this is not a laugh out loud post but the image invoked by “She took it from there, with one of her children holding the butchering book.” Did just that to me. Absurd?

    And I agree with CC I hope you took that bone…smoked bones for beans …yum!

  6. In England, an interesting person name Arthur Boyt eats road kill (he doesn’t hit it himself). A cruel, if free and environmentally way of obtaining meat.

  7. I agree with you El. My husband and I don’t raise our own meat but have gotten to know the local beef and pig farmers. We also are avid hunters and process all our wildlife our selves (I have to know what I’m eating!), with the help of our son and daughter. Living off the land is just good knowledge to have.

  8. Pig bones may not make great stock by themselves, but they are a very nice addition to chicken bones. Roasting them first does also help.

    Of course, “pigs don’t make great stock” is all relative. Seen or (gasp!) tasted the content of a can of “boughten” stock lately?

  9. We recently purchased half a hog and half a beef from local farmer. The more time I spend with my chickens however, the less I have any desire for chicken. I just don’t think I could eat one of my own. Maybe if they were all the same and I didn’t spend so much time as I do now.
    Do you have other pets? I asked for all the bones from the pork and beef and I use it to make broth, to which I add vegies, rice and beans and stir in my dog food.
    I’ll render the fat for suet cakes for the birds.

  10. It’s funny — Kimberly’s experience is opposite mine. I’m not more fond of my chickens — although I’m not wildly slaughtering them either. It’s just a semi-sad part of life. I eat less meat, just because killing my own was a reminder that it’s costly, in both psychic and economic ways. So I buy less meat and use it much more respectfully.

    I’d love to find a hunter who would share for tags.

  11. Thanks, Jules. I’m glad you bother to read it!

    CC, oh yeah.

    Emily, that sounds wonderful. That’s one of the things I do with oxtail once I get them (kind of rarely) but indeed, browning ’em up in the oven is a good way to handle it.

    Thanks, Dennis, that one’s on my radar too. She’s originally from the area, oddly enough. She’s equally persuasive.

    Nada, oh but she did! Never come between a homeschooling mother and an opportunity to teach the young’uns. And beans, pork, yum.

    Hi Colin. I would imagine it would be a good way to eat, if you get there in time. Understandably, badly-damaged flesh is nobody’s idea of a good meal, but yeah, that serves a couple of purposes. In the Midwest there are so many deer that it’s possible to eat quite well that way. I know a guy who hit 3 deer, last year, three different occasions. Now that’s a full freezer!

    Well hello Gardenbound. My dad was a bird hunter: he preferred grouse, pheasant and woodcock, and sometimes I would come home from school in late fall and see those pretty birds hanging in the garage. I agree it’s a good way to get to know where your food comes from! And I am glad you’re teaching your kids, too.

    Sylvie, ick, no! I’d prefer water then, with mirepoix! But yes an adventure awaits. I think I will save other things for stock, and glace. Tis the season to have something on the stove all day…

    Kimberly, yeah, it does make it easier if you have a bunch of chickens that are the same if you’re going to eat them. Actually, when they’re without their feathers, heads and feet they’re fairly anonymous, but indeed, I can’t eat my egg girls. In point of fact there are 3 “extra” girls in there: two meat and one egg, and they all seem to have gotten a pass by me this year. But yes, making your own dog food can be fun, and I am glad to hear you got your halves: that’s a lot of fun cooking in the future for you.

    Stef, you might need to (find a hunter): maybe another future adventure for you. I’m sure you could, in that community. Finding a wild pig might be really amazing. But yes, poor chickies: I get emotional about my veggies too but it’s not the same.

  12. Re: wild pigs – I have a photo a friend took on a morning walk of a wild boar trotting through her neighborhood – West side of Ann Arbor, behind some car dealerships! The DNR fellow who investigated said they’re actually fairly common in southern Michigan.

    • Emily, who knew!! Wow. Think about how tasty those little guys must be, feasting on acorns and apples. You gotta wonder where they come from. In California, Texas and Arkansas, it’s fairly obvious: the Spanish brought them. But out here? Are they escapees from farmsteads that have gone feral? Very curious. Goodness, I will certainly say if I ever see one!

      Okay, I had to research this. Here’s one article and of course the Michigan DNR says “shoot first, ask questions later.” Supposedly having them “makes the emerald ash borer look like a bad hair day.”

  13. While Michael Pollan’s reader-submitted food rules are all worth a look as they’re quite funny/enlightening, there’s one I keep coming back to and struggle with: Don’t Eat Anything You Aren’t Willing to Kill Yourself. Despite growing up on the sort of idyllic beef farm that AVM waxes poetic about, I am a pitifully soft adult. I don’t think I could kill anything that I raised and cared for (which is not meant in any way as a condemnation of those who can and do). I certainly feel better buying meat from farmers who I know raise their animals with a higher level of care and reverence, but that doesn’t satisfy the rule since I still couldn’t bring myself to raise and kill something. It’s not specifically the killing that bothers me. I know I could hunt without any qualms. The animal who has the misfortune of wandering into my sights is not an individual that I have invested time and effort into caring for, and it has not developed any level of trust in me or my care. I’m not sure how, philosophically and emotionally speaking, to achieve the same ends (food on my plate) from an animal that I have raised. I know that the most obvious rule of raising animals for food is not to get attached (don’t name them, etc), but having grown up on a farm, I also know that complete detachment is not possible for anyone with a normal psychological profile. Somewhere along the evolutionary line, we developed the annoying tendency to bond with just about anything with eyes and warm breath. How do you balance that part of what you do?

  14. Hi Jess.

    You are quite right and complete detachment is not possible. All I can say is that the little zone I go into is probably terribly similar to your own hunting zone: the creature is in my sights, though the death isn’t as easy as the simple pulling of a trigger. It’s hand’s on. That’s what is hard: I am very much there, “taking” the life. There is no stopping once the throat is slit or the trigger is pulled. All we both can hope for is a clean cut, a clean shot, otherwise, suffering likewise occurs.

    Our life has become less and less hand’s on now that “convenience” has taken hold. I suppose you can substitute “convenience” for “not getting one’s hands dirty,” but I believe what both Pollan and even Kingsolver are saying is that SOMEONE is getting their hands dirty for you. You are merely subcontracting that process to someone much less well paid than you, someone who is willing to dirty their hands, someone who might not even have a choice. Not everyone can grow their own, can raise and kill their own meat; I would have a hell of a time doing in a 1200 lb. steer here, for example. But I am willing to subcontract some things, just not the majority of the things we eat. It’s a moral issue, very fraught: if you don’t care about animals then do you care about the people who process your meat? What about the pesticides dumped on the land to grow the crops to feed those animals? If I am to moralize, I just want to shorten the chain considerably, and be responsible for muddying my own hands or–at the very least–supporting those farmers who raise meat responsibly and have it processed responsibly.

    I am not sure if that answers your question. It is tough killing the individuals, but then again I almost never kill individuals, I kill many at a time: when they’re without feathers, feet and heads, I find I’m not tripped up by my sentiments. But I do love them.

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